When Sebastian Vettel poked the nose of his Ferrari alongside the flank of Max Verstappen’s Red Bull as they hurtled into Suzuka’s Spoon corner on the eighth lap of Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix, he was doing what racing drivers do. Or so he claimed later.
“If I no longer go for a gap,” he said, “I am no longer a racing driver.”
In times gone by, those words would have been applauded as the kind of thinking that separates the heroes from the humdrum. But these are different times. And Verstappen is a different type of opponent, as Vettel ought to have recognised before the two cars collided, dropping him from fourth place to a position from which he could no longer hope to mount a challenge for the win.
Vettel should have waited. In a car demonstrably faster than Verstappen’s, a clear opportunity would have presented itself sooner rather than later. But there was no clarity in the Ferrari driver’s mind. He chose to ignore everything he knows about Verstappen, a 21-year-old with a sense of entitlement the size of Texas. As early as the first lap, the Red Bull had smashed into Kimi Räikkönen, Vettel’s teammate, ruining the Finn’s race.
Verstappen is blindingly quick. He is also impetuous. Once upon a time the senior drivers on the grid would have had a word, but today there are two reasons why that impetuosity is allowed to run unchecked. The first is that the risks are a great deal lower than they were in the days before the cars were built around survival cells; the chance that he will kill himself or someone else is minimal. The second is that he attracts new fans at a time when Formula One desperately needs to boost its box‑office appeal to a younger demographic.
So he was never going to yield. Which means that Vettel’s lapse of judgment, by no means the first in his career or even this season, effectively blew the German’s chance of sustaining his challenge to Lewis Hamilton for a fifth world championship, a title that had seemed to be his for the taking only a few races ago.
Indirectly, the two Ferrari drivers were paying for strategic errors made by their team during the final qualifying session, when the Mercedes of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas were sent out in changing conditions on the right tyres at the right time to claim the front row while the Ferraris guessed wrong and were relegated to fourth (Räikkönen) and ninth (Vettel) on the starting grid. No team is immune to such mistakes – Mercedes committed a few of their own earlier in the season – but the Scuderia Ferrari’s strategists are making them at the wrong end of the season, when the time available for recovery is dwindling.
Any assessment of Ferrari’s late-season slump must be seen against the background of the sudden death of their chairman and chief executive, Sergio Marchionne, in July. His replacement as chairman is John Elkann, the boss of Fiat and grandson of Gianni Agnelli, who stepped in to buy a large chunk of the financially strapped Ferrari business in 1969 when its founder had been on the brink of selling the company to Ford. Elkann does at least have Ferrari blood in his veins.
The man with the day-to-day responsibility for running the show, however, is the new chief executive, Louis Camilleri, an Egyptian-born, Swiss-educated American citizen who had previously spent 40 years with the Philip Morris cigarette company. This is no coincidence, since Philip Morris has been the team’s most significant sponsor since 1973, and Camilleri was already on Ferrari’s board. Reporting to him is Maurizio Arrivabene, a former Philip Morris marketing executive who had spent many years handling the commercial relationship between the two companies and became the team principal in 2014.
So now the Scuderia is being run by two men with a background in selling cigarettes, whose former employer maintained a deep relationship with the team despite a ban on tobacco advertising in F1 which came into effect – belatedly overcoming intense lobbying by the interested parties – in 2007. Their Marlboro brand was the team’s title sponsor, so influential that at one point the famous Ferrari red changed hue to match that of the cigarette packet. After the ban, a giant barcode resembling the word Marlboro and then a white chevron against the red background on the cars’ engine covers sent subliminal reminders of the tobacco company’s message.
This week, too, they revealed a further change to the cars’ livery, ostensibly to publicise a new scheme “dedicated to science, technology and innovation” but unmistakably using graphics to form shapes that again mimicked the packet design. Unfortunately the announcement coincided with the unravelling of their attempt to win a first drivers’ championship since 2007.
The problem for Arrivabene is that when he looks along the pit wall at the men managing the other top teams – at Mercedes’ Toto Wolff, Red Bull’s Christian Horner and Helmut Marko, and others – he sees rivals with a background in racing rather than marketing. It may be no accident that the team’s last period of sustained success occurred when the running of Michael Schumacher’s car was being overseen by such men: a bunch of proper racers.
At Mercedes, Wolff recognises that Hamilton has a complicated temperament and works hard to get the best from his No 1 driver. Neither Arrivabene, Camilleri nor anyone else at Ferrari has the background that would enable them to give constructive advice to their own four-time world champion, or to supervise the finer points of race strategy. And on that factor, perhaps, hangs the destiny of this year’s title.